[Editor’s Note: “The Witness,” which opens today in New York, is an eye-opening exploration of the real story behind the 1964 Kitty Genovese murder that rocked the country. We asked director Jim Solomon, who has made a career of turning history into gripping screenplays, to recount his 11-year journey of making this film and how meeting Kitty’s brother Bill made him realize this was one story he wouldn’t be able to capture with his pen.]
If only I could write characters, plot twists and dialogue as well as real life.
By profession, I am a screenwriter. I am drawn to iconic stories we think we know on subjects ranging from the Lincoln assassination (“The Conspirator,” directed by Robert Redford) to George Steinbrenner’s Yankees (ESPN’s “The Bronx is Burning”).
For the past eleven years, I have been making a documentary film – “The Witness” – about the seminal 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese. Her name will be familiar to anyone who has taken an intro psychology class, as she was reportedly stabbed to death on a New York City street while 38 neighbors watched – and none helped.
Her tragic death defined New York City in the 1960s as cruel and dangerous, and declared that we were all fundamentally alone. It is credited with leading to the creation of the 9-1-1 Emergency System, Good Samaritan Laws and Neighborhood Watch Groups like the Guardian Angels. It spawned countless studies on bystander inaction (“Kitty Genovese syndrome”) and inspired songs, books, dramas, an opera and a graphic novel. Recently, both HBO’s “Girls” and NBC’s “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” based episodes on the infamous crime.
And it turns out the iconic story of her murder isn’t true.
“The Witness” began as a scripted film for HBO, back in 1999, in collaboration with Joe Berlinger (“Paradise Lost”) and Alfred Uhry (“Driving Miss Daisy,” “Mystic Pizza”). In the course of researching that film, I met Kitty Genovese’s younger brother, Bill, who was 16 when she was killed. It wasn’t merely the loss of the big sister he idolized that made such an impact on Bill — it was also the shattering account of her death on the front page of The New York Times:
“For more than a half hour thirty-eight respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens. Twice the sound of their voices and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead.”
Bill felt he had to prove to himself that he would not only have opened his window that night but also gone down into the street. While most of his peers sought to avoid being drafted, he enlisted in the Marines and was sent to Vietnam. A few months into his tour, at age 19, he was seriously injured when a remote-detonated landmine was exploded. He lost both legs above the knee. The HBO project didn’t happen, largely because our script wasn’t nearly as compelling as the people who had actually lived this story. I turned my focus to other projects. Then, in 2004, the Times published an article on the 40th anniversary of Kitty Genovese’s murder questioning the newspaper’s original 1964 account: what the witnesses saw and heard; even the number “38 Witnesses.”
Transformed by the iconic story of his sister’s death, Bill needed to find out for himself what actually took place that night. I approached Bill with the idea of documenting his investigation, on camera, as I realized the most affecting way for me to portray Kitty’s story was through those who knew her best. At the time, little did we know filming would span more than a decade.
As a screenwriter turned documentarian, I had to learn patience and trust. On the page, control is paramount and instantaneous over when to enter and exit a scene or to introduce a plot turn. In making a documentary, I had to allow it to unfold on its own terms – and hope. I was committed to following Bill, as he unraveled the truth wherever it led. And it wasn’t just me: Melissa Jacobson (co-producer) and Trish Govoni (cinematographer) were by my side all eleven years. Their talent, commitment and continuous presence greatly enhanced the trust that developed with Bill and his family, who for the past half century had chosen to remain private amidst this most public crime.
Bill was relentlessly determined to speak with anyone still living with a direct connection to his sister – be it in life or through her death. This included tracking down everyone from the witnesses in the apartments that night to the journalists who created the narrative of her death to Kitty’s closest associates to his sister’s killer. It never ceased to be the most fascinating experience of my professional life. But as it played out year-after-year, I would be lying if I didn’t admit to having serious doubts whether filming would ever end.
The biggest revelation for me was post-production. We all know the cliché: “films are made in the editing room.” In my limited experience as a documentary filmmaker, it seems a documentary is actually discovered there. I cannot give my editors, Gabriel Rhodes and Russell Greene, enough credit and thanks for finding this film both within and in spite of me. It took two-and-a-half years to whittle three hundred-plus hours down to 89 minutes. Most significantly, while I initially set out to make a scripted film about Kitty Genovese, the film I ended up making is as much about her remarkable brother, Bill.
Quite simply: Bill is the most compelling, complex, humane and heroic protagonist that I only wish that I had the imagination to write. As I contemplate a return to my day job, I have a queasy feeling knowing that as a screenwriter I will never be the equal to what unfolds in real life within “The Witness.”
“The Witness” opens today in New York City at the IFC Center, and in Los Angeles and other major markets on June 17.